Stepping beyond tradition to match global standards

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There was a tradition in the Tagore household at Thakurbari, Jorasankho, of presenting plays and dance dramas in which all the members of the Tagore family would act. Author Aruna Chakraborty has painted a tender but detailed account of it in her book ‘Jorasankho’. So when Manipuri dancer Priti Patel recounted a similar tradition in her family, it immediately recalled minding the Tagore tradition.

Born into an illustrious Gujrati family, her Grandfather, Umed Bhai Patel, moved to Kolkata in the 1920s and set up a tea business. His success drew many others to Kolkata and eventually he became a leader of Kolkata’s patidar Samaj, and the Patel family in Kolkata numbered around two hundred. Here in 1960 was born Priti. “My grandfather was a very progressive man and devised a way to keep the women of the family usefully engaged. He invited the renowned Manipuri guru, who had already made a name for himself as the guru of the Jhaveri sisters in Mumbai, to create dance dramas for the family”, recalls Priti. This was a serious enterprise and the Kala Mandir auditorium would be booked for the performance that was viewed by friends and family. “I remember having a lot of fun at the rehearsals as a child, which would go on for six weeks, as we practiced every day before each play” said Priti, patently remembering some of the fun incidents of the rehearsals. “We did ‘Shakuntala’and ‘Nal Damyanti’, all in Gujrati with Guruji and his wife Guru Kalavati Devicreating the choreographies and making us practice”.

Seeing the earnestness of young Priti, when she was about ten, Guru Bipin Singh suggested that she should learn formally from a guru.

Her grandfather instantly ended any debate by saying that if he was there, what was the need for another! “That is how I came to learn Manipuri dance, and that too from Guru Bipin Singh”, admitting that some decisions just happen. Guru ji came home to teach her and did so till she was about seventeen.

“One day he said, you have to prove to me how serious you are about dance and how much you love me. I asked my parents far a year off from studies so that I could go to him in Mumbai. Here I stayed with the Jhaveri sisters and proved my Guru Bhakti, admitted Priti. Although after a year she went back to complete her studies, it was not easy as Guruji did not want us to do anything but dance. And he was a tough task master. I barely finished my graduation and he put his foot down for any ideas I may have had about a Masters degree. Instead, he composed a solo repertoire for me, on me” says Priti with the reverence reserved for a moment of history. For in Manipuri dance there is no formal Arangetram or rangapravessh, by which a dancer makes her debut on stage. It does have an initiation ceremony called ‘Sharanya’, meaning dedication, where a solo or duet is performed for two hours as proof of having become a full-fledged dancer.

Training with Priti was Shruti Bandopadhyay, “with whom I have danced as one”, recalls Priti, who used to play the role of Krishna to Shruti’s Radha. Later the two set up Lavanyain 1990, where they first started teaching children with cerebral palsy using Manipuri dance as a way of healing. Later they parted ways as Shruti went on to teach at Rabindra Bharati University, while Priti went on to do creative work in Manipuri and in 1995, with the blessings of her mentor Maharajkumari Binodini Devi and her Pt. Khelchandra Singh, her preceptor for the Manipuri martial art, Thang Ta – set up ‘Anjika’ where she teaches and where she houses her Repertory Company.

The nomenclature of ‘Anjika’ has been arrived at in an interesting manner. ‘Anji’ is the first letter in the Metei alphabet while ‘ka’ is the first letter of the devnagari alphabet. Anji is also the image of the animistic snake god Pakhamba, the serpent who eats its own tail, making it a representation of the Hindu idea of ‘anadi anant’, timeless eternity. This image has the same signification in Metei culture as ‘Om’ in Hindu faith. And finally, in Metei culture, Anjika means the blessings of the gods! “When we set up Anjika, we opened with what I believe was our finest production- the Maharas which was organized in an open ground in the Fort William Army area, on a full moon night. We did all the authentic rituals and our eye for detail ensured that we even brought in the bamboo from Manipur”. Almost a thousand people came to see it, sitting on all four sides as it is done in Manipur”, described Priti graphically.

How easy was it for her to enter this culture and be so closely identified with it is the question that comes to mind immediately on meeting her for she is always attired in the Phanek and Eneffi- the hand woven skirt/sarong and the shawl/drape. “It is destiny”, she remarks candidly,” that I could even enter this rich but less understood culture. I have no answer and that was my reply also to Maharajkumari Binodini Devi when she asked me this question, and she agreed with me”. Maharajkumari Binodidn Devi was a towering figure in the world of Manipuri Arts. Born into the royal family she successfully blended the old with the modern in her writings, for which she received the Sahitya Akademi award and the Padmashri. Later she returned the Padmashri s a political protest. Many of her writings have been adapted into plays, films and dance dramas. “She was just one of the most amazing personalities who was dynamic, one of a kind and a fearless writer”, admits Priti about her mentor, whom she first met as she pursued an enquiry about what preceded the Raas in Manipuri dance. “It was she who made it easy for me to access masters and knowledge about the Manipuri way of life”!

This Manipuri artiste has not experimented with any external styles. Her work has consistently been drawn exclusively from the traditional dance form

Priti Patel has had the benefit of training with iconic Gurus of this dance form. One of them was Ojha Babu Singh. “I had a unique bond.  He would wait for me to come to Manipur and I would reach his house every morning on the dot of five, without any agenda of a programme or recording or learning a specific item. We would talk at length and unconsciously I learnt many things from him. he would cite me as the kind of student he wanted. That made me realize that while we were lucky to get such masters as our gurus, even they felt fortunate to have dedicated students like us”. Today as she is a guru herself, she remembers her own, every day of her life.

Today when she is hailed as one of the strongest voices of this form, one sees that she has not experimented with any external styles or fusions. Her work has consistently drawn exclusively from this tradition. “Manipuri is an ancient art whose canvas is extensive and profound, and that is why I never felt the need to combine with other forms. Further, Manipuri is still a living tradition. From cradle to grave there are any number of ceremonies that require song and dance. It is a dance ritual rather than a form and according to me, its life lies within the daily life of its people. That is one reason why Manipuri dance has a lot of practitioners but few stage performers.” This aspect of the continuity of a living tradition allows Priti to introduce creativity. For instance, in traditional Thang-ta, while change of movements and steps is frowned upon, in her choreographies, because it is a stage presentation, she can,  take creative liberties which enhances the artistry, allowing her to realise her dream of doing international standard work with her chosen art form.

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